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China's Pipelineistan "War"

The sleeping giant enters the new Great Game.

| Tue Oct. 12, 2010 3:32 PM EDT

IPI vs. TAPI All Over Again

On the oil front, even if all the "stans" sold China every barrel of oil they currently pump, less than half of China's daily import needs would be met. Ultimately, only the Middle East can quench China's thirst for oil. According to the International Energy Agency, China's overall oil needs will rise to 11.3 million barrels per day by 2015, even with domestic production peaking at 4.0 million bpd. Compare that to what some of China's alternative suppliers are now producing: Angola, 1.4 million bpd; Kazakhstan, 1.4 million as well; and Sudan, 400,000.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia produces 10.9 million bpd, Iran around 4.0 million, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) 3.0 million, Kuwait 2.7 million—and then there's Iraq, presently at 2.5 million and likely to reach at least 4.0 million by 2015. Still, Beijing has yet to be fully convinced that this is a safe supply, especially given all those US "forward operating sites" in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman, plus those roaming naval battle groups in the Persian Gulf.

On the gas front, China definitely counts on a South Asian game changer. Beijing has already spent $200 million on the first phase in the construction of a deepwater port at Gwadar in Pakistan's Balochistan Province. It wanted, and got from Islamabad, "sovereign guarantees to the port's facilities." Gwadar is only 400 kilometers from Hormuz. With Gwadar, the Chinese Navy would have a homeport that would easily allow it to monitor traffic in the strait and someday perhaps even thwart the US Navy's expansionist designs in the Indian Ocean.

But Gwadar has another infinitely juicier future role. It could prove the pivot in a competition between two long-discussed pipelines: TAPI and IPI. TAPI stands for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, which can never be built as long as US and NATO occupation forces are fighting the resistance umbrella conveniently labeled "Taliban" in Afghanistan. IPI, however, is the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, also known as the "peace pipeline" (which, of course, would make TAPI the "war pipeline"). To Washington's immeasurable distress, last June, Iran and Pakistan finally closed the deal to build the "IP" part of IPI, with Pakistan assuring Iran that either India or China could later be brought into the project.

Whether it's IP, IPI, or IPC, Gwadar will be a key node. If, under pressure from Washington, which treats Tehran like the plague, India is forced to pull out of the project, China already has made it clear that it wants in. The Chinese would then build a Pipelineistan link from Gwadar along the Karakorum highway in Pakistan to China via the Khunjerab Pass—another overland corridor that would prove immune to US interference. It would have the added benefit of radically cutting down the 20,000-kilometer-long tanker route around the southern rim of Asia.

Arguably, for the Indians it would be a strategically sound move to align with IPI, trumping a deep suspicion that the Chinese will move to outflank them in the search for foreign energy with a "string of pearls" strategy: the setting up of a series of "home ports" along its key oil supply routes from Pakistan to Myanmar. In that case, Gwadar would no longer simply be a "Chinese" port.

As for Washington, it still believes that if TAPI is built, it will help keep India from fully breaking the US-enforced embargo on Iran. Energy-starved Pakistan obviously prefers its "all-weather" ally China, which might commit itself to building all sorts of energy infrastructure within that flood-devastated country. In a nutshell, if the unprecedented energy cooperation between Iran, Pakistan, and China goes forward, it will signal a major defeat for Washington in the New Great Game in Eurasia, with enormous geopolitical and geo-economic repercussions.

For the moment, Beijing's strategic priority has been to carefully develop a remarkably diverse set of energy-suppliers—a flow of energy that covers Russia, the South China Sea, Central Asia, the East China Sea, the Middle East, Africa, and South America. (China's forays into Africa and South America will be dealt with in a future installment of our TomDispatch tour of the globe's energy hotspots.) If China has so far proven masterly in the way it has played its cards in its Pipelineistan "war", the US hand—bypass Russia, elbow out China, isolate Iran—may soon be called for what it is: a bluff.

Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is Obama Does Globalistan. He may be reached at pepeasia@yahoo.com.

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